Performing behind bars

Tony and Steve in a hallway while loading in to the prison

Waiting for the next door to unlock

On Thursday we played the Beveren State Prison. We’d heard from other bands that playing a prison show was cool so we decided to give it a go this tour. Beveren Prison is brand new, a state-of-the-art facility just opened this spring. Each cell has a TV and computer with limited internet access. The grounds are laid out with a central hub and four long wings or arms that stretch out to make a big “X” shape. We were kindly told to leave our cell phones and cameras in the van, but one member of our party did manage to snap the shots you see here. The warden, Willem, met us in the front office where we turned in our passports and were issued photo ID badges. This place is all concrete and thick glass windows. The environment quickly humbled me as I followed the warden and a jovial guard deep into the belly of the prison.

 

The empty room where we performed, showing two rows of chairs and stark fluorescent lighting

This is our performance venue?

It was slow going. Every time we came to a door, the door behind us had to be closed and locked before the new door could be opened. There were lots of doors! The warden and guard spoke English and were friendly and light. This helped. Finally we reached the room where we would perform. The room was actually the “Spiritual Services” room. Wonderful! There were no beer taps or happy soccer fans in this place! The room was all concrete and bare. Black plastic chairs sat in several rows in front of the small room. This place was tiny, hot and very intimate. No prisoners yet. They would be brought in later according to some strict schedule held by the warden. We began setting up our gear….mostly in silence. Throwing around jokes and laughs seemed odd. The totally relaxed guard brought us subs and sodas for lunch. After a quick setup and bite to eat we sat and waited. The room deep in the bowels of this concrete maze was already making me itchy and sweaty.

Just so you know, The Nickel Slots are bad boys when it comes to Americana, but none of us have spent time behind bars. My exposure to prison life has been limited to episodes of the HBO series OZ and late Friday night episodes of Lockdown viewed from the comfort of my La-Z-Boy. As I waited, I imagined the the tattooed, shackled, orange-jumpsuit-wearing, hardened criminals that would soon enter this room and sit staring at me. We were told only a few prisoners would be attending the show because many were watching the USA vs Germany game. Also, in order to attend such “special” events, inmates needed good marks on some prison star chart. That’s good!

Chris opening a box of drum hardware in the room where we performed

Chris unpacking his kit

Although we were supposed to start at 6, we were still fidgeting in silence at 6:20 when a guard came in and told the warden that the transfer of inmates would begin. Jesus! Was there trouble on the yard?! I waited in anticipation of these prisoners, inmates, criminals, thugs, violent ruffians! I looked at the guard. He smiled. He didn’t have a gun or a johnny-bad-ass stick or even any pepper spray that I could see. He seemed relaxed and excited that his routine was injected with some boys from California who play rock and roll. Here come the first two. My initial impression…these guys are babies. Two 18ish-looking boys walk in smiling. They are dressed in street clothes and look like two locals entering a pub to watch a match and toss back a few pints. They speak broken English. They quickly approach me and shake hands, smile and sit in the second row…talking to each other and pointing at Steve’s guitar. Here come the rest.

In all, 14 inmates enter and sit. I don’t know their crimes. I don’t know their sentences. Are they Lifers? Did they just get in? Did they murder someone? Questions fly through my skull as I smile at the faces, nod, and pretend to tune my guitar for the tenth time. Everyone’s settled. The warden introduces us warmly and we launch into “120 Days and 120 Nights.” Really! Why are we opening with this song?! The room is fricking hot! I look over at Steve. He looks like he just came out of a sauna fully clothed. I go into one of my head bobs and watch as sweat flies from my forehead and lands on the shoe of the guy in the front row. Seriously?!

As I sing the lyrics to songs I’ve written I’m half hoping these guys don’t understand English. Too many references. What are these guys thinking as they watch us play? California boys on tour in their country….watching football…drinking beer….while they sit in a concrete boxes. Did the lyrics and our upbeat playing remind them of times gone by when they sat with a partner or friends and enjoyed a lively “free” night? Parts of the answers were spelled out on their faces. I saw it all….joy, pain, nostalgia, sorrow, false bravado, determination, apathy, shame.

There was one guy who I kept locking eyes with. His eyes were filled with a mixture of deep shame and controlled panic. I don’t what this guy did, but every time I looked at him a mere 5 feet away, I wanted to hide him in Chris’ bass drum case and sneak him far, far away from this place. I know……that’s not the way it works, but your brain and your heart can wage big battles when faced with unfamiliar situations.

Steve, Tony, and Paul setting up the PA system in the room where we performed

Setting up the PA system

Politics didn’t enter my mind. Sitting in this small room with these inmates became real. They were fellow human beings sharing a musical experience with us. This was one tough gig though! We played our songs. I did my best to talk in between songs…but what do you say? “Hey, we’re happy to be here! You have a great prison! Cheers! Party on!” I did my best. Eye contact and smiles. Human contact. That’s what I was pulled into. All people desire connection. There was the young clown who called out “Hotel California!” He kept laughing and calling out after songs. He couldn’t sit still but the others around seemed to know him and were not bothered. There was the older French man who spoke good English. His confidence was respected by the others. There were several happy, smiling, clapping young dudes. There were several who looked gone (as in our song “Freedom”). They had eyes that looked straight at us but seemed far away in a happier place.

As we ended each song we were warmly received. Feet began tapping. Hands occasionally clapped along. Smiles increased in number. At one point the loud happy guy yelled out that we were the best band to play the prison…at least I think that’s what he said. At one point Paul asked the group if they would rather hear an older song that we could nail, or a brand new song that we might mess up. They eagerly voted for the latter….anything new please…or maybe they just wanted to see us mess up so they could feel more human again. Regardless, we played “Club Rendezvous” for the first time live for these guys….only a few mess ups, but no one minded!

One encore and we were done! Cool! What next. Connection. We walked the room shaking hands with each inmate. Every single man reached out to eagerly and firmly shake hands. Eyes met, hands shook, shoulders were patted….connection. It’s hard. These guys probably did some really bad things. The difference was that we had just shared a musical experience. Something I love so much. They got it! I saw them as guys who dug music. Not as criminals who got caught. These were humans who although made mistakes, still needed human connection.

Chris leaning against a wall

Chillin’ like a villain, waiting for our escort out

We said goodbyes as they were marched away…most of them waving and smiling. What was next on their list of daily activities? We waited for the warden and the guard to return and walk us the long hallways to freedom. Fresh air! The claustrophobia I’d been holding in my shoulders began to ease. Passports returned, hands shook, goodbyes and we were back in the van heading AWAY from Beveren. Heading back to Vorselaar where we’d meet up with friends to watch the World Cup. Later that night as we drank and sang Belgium to a victory over South Korea, I was occasionally visited by those eyes.

I’m glad I did it. Everyone should walk through a prison and sit eye to eye with inmates. I hope the system works for these guys. I hope they get rehabilitated. I hope they do their time honorably and are released new and changed. I wish them well.

–Tony

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